The Australian Defence Force’s ongoing challenge of retention has been well commentated and documented. In 2021, the Australian Army saw 11.9% of its force separate, with almost a third of those separations being involuntary – including medical discharges.

The issue of Medical Employment Classifications (MEC) also impacts those currently serving. According to data from the Total Workforce Pocket Brief, of the roughly 13,000 Service Category (SERCAT) 5-7 Army workforce who are Army Individual Readiness Notice (AIRN) non-compliant, an estimated 20% of these are due to medical reasons.

Members who are downgraded within the MEC system face unique challenges that may impact their long-term retention within Defence, even if they were to fully recover.

Members who are MEC downgraded are typically limited in the job roles they can perform, which can lead to limited career progression and job satisfaction. Secondly, the uncertainty and prolonged duration of the MEC and rehabilitation process can make it difficult for members to plan for their future, impacting physical and mental health.

Are there programs that support physical and psychological rehabilitation, while also providing professional opportunities and increased job satisfaction?

The ADF Adaptive Sports Program

The ADF Sports Cell enjoys large interest across the ADF, encompassing 29 ADF Sport Associations and an estimated 8,500 serving personnel. Within the ADF Sport Cell is the Adaptive Sports Program, which seeks to improve the quality of life of both serving and former serving ADF personnel through sport that is adaptive and modified for the limitations of those wounded, ill or injured – regardless of whether the injury was service-related or not.

Adaptive Sport plays an important role in both recovery and retention. Sport and competition can provide people help in building camaraderie and support networks, which can be lacking when personnel are not able to perform their usual job due to their medical restrictions.

Academic literature supports these claims. Studies from the Western Michigan University found adaptive sports programs increased levels of physical activity for veterans with traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Meanwhile, researchers at Columbia University found adaptive sports and increased physical activity reduced levels of depression and anxiety within the veteran community, and facilitated community reintegration.

The Invictus Games

I recently returned from the Invictus Games in Dusseldorf, Germany – one of world’s largest international veteran adaptive sporting events, with over 500 competitors from 22 nations competing in 10 different sports.

One competitor that struck me was Australia’s flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony, Verity Sanchez. Over the course of 10 months in the Adaptive Sports Program, Verity dropped her 1500m run time by 20%, returned to swimming squad training for the first time since high school, and picked up an entirely new sport in table tennis; becoming skilled enough to eventually take silver at the Games

Verity proves that regardless of injury, age, or sport; anyone can enter the Adaptive Sports Program and the Invictus Games and can improve with regular and sustained effort. Could such experiences be shared by current-serving members if given the time and support to do so?

The immediate challenge to this question is the external limitations placed on the Australian Invictus Games team. Capped at 31 competitors, only a third of our Australian team of competitors were current serving ADF members. However, I propose that incorporating the large number of current serving members medically downgraded into the Adaptive Sports Program can be done without these members necessarily competing at the Invictus Games.

A model similar to the US Military’s Warrior Games could be introduced, which sees veterans from each branch of the military participate in an inter-service competition that “celebrates the resiliency and dedication of wounded, ill, and injured” personnel, including those current and former serving. The Warrior Games also serves as the ‘selection camp’ at which the US Invictus Games’ team is chosen to compete the following year. 

Similar domestic, inter-service events could be held in areas of large defence establishments in Australia, and be open to anyone wounded, ill or injured – and regardless of whether their injury was service related. Such large public events have already been achieved by Army with great success – Run Army being one such example.

Those identified as being suitable to enter the Adaptive Sports Program wouldn’t need to be in the competing Invictus Games team to receive the physical and psychosocial benefits of Adaptive Sport. These personnel could still be supported through the existing training and coaching infrastructure within the ASP. These personnel would also still be able to support the Invictus Games in team management, coaching, technical officials, or general duties. Such was demonstrated by the German Bundeswehr at this year’s Invictus Games; with thousands of current-serving members donning ‘volunteer shirts’ and assisting the Games in a multitude of roles.

Other opportunities for these current-serving personnel within Adaptive Sports could be in supporting sport outreach programs in the Indo-Pacific; as coaches, team managers, or technical officials. In 2023 alone, such coaching workshops have already been run for and by Defence personnel for NRL in Singleton and netball in PNG.


Adaptive sport could be one key strategy used to improve retention in the ADF by enabling recovery, fostering comradery, and improving professional opportunities and job satisfaction for members who are medically restricted. The initiatives proposed above may allow these members to continue to make meaningful contributions to Defence while they undergo rehabilitation and continue to serve.